So much rings true in the film “Kelly and Cal” that it almost hurts to watch. But the leads, Juliette Lewis and Jonny Weston, bring so much spark to their roles that even when some moments hit too close to home, it’s a wonderful film. Lewis is absolutely perfect as Kelly, a new mom adrift in the suburbs; she used to be cool and now she doesn’t know what she is.
Sneaking a cigarette in her backyard one day, Kelly gets an unwanted sexual comment from her teenage neighbor. When she sees he’s in a wheelchair, she feels terrible for telling him off. As she forces herself to stroll her newborn son around her new neighborhood, she takes an opportunity to apologize to the young man. Soon, they recognize a kindred rebellious streak in each other.
The other, more salient thing they both have in common is a very great neediness. Cal has only recently been in the accident that left him wheelchair-bound, and is reeling from the more common teenage insult of his girlfriend dumping him. Kelly feels unattractive to her distant husband and is immature enough to enjoy feeling attractive to Cal, and to encourage it. When she sees how cool she is to him, the attention becomes irresistible. She easily impresses the younger guy, and she brings over tapes of her old rock band, and breaks out the ‘90s stalwart “Manic Panic” to dye her hair bright blue.
Her actions perfectly walk the line between believable and outrageously inappropriate, and it is the cinematic personality of the actual Juliette Lewis that sells the thing. You can imagine the actress herself telling some kid about what a cool, edgy movie star she was in the ‘90s, instead of the fictional musician she is in this film, and it seems extremely true to life. Reminding the kid of what she used to be like reminds herself of what she used to be like, and she gets hooked on the feeling.
The weird bummer that is often the reality of having a newborn is captured so perfectly it’s uncanny. When Kelly’s pushy in-laws start visiting to help with the baby, I felt relieved. She unfortunately takes the opportunity to just hang out with the cute boy next door every day, baby free, and it’s not that it doesn’t seem like fun, it’s just that the poor guy is so vulnerable. It definitely might be more fun to drink beer with the cute young neighbor than to be on the receiving end of a harrowing makeover from Cybill Shepherd, who plays Kelly’s mother-in-law, but grown women really just shouldn’t. Not more than once, anyway.
While Cal’s outlook does temporarily improve as a result of their time together, Kelly is selfishly stringing the poor guy along to make herself feel good. She just finds it so satisfying to impress him, and can somehow justify her actions based on the facts of his misfortune and the idea that she is cheering him up. It’s rare and fascinating to see a character behave in such a complex and ultimately wrong way without being a full-on bad guy.
“Kelly and Cal” is a sensitive and well-written drama and, in addition to Lewis’s note-perfect performance, Weston makes Cal so charismatic, defiant and wise that you can sometimes believe he can handle himself, that he is more mature than he possibly could be. Kelly fools herself into thinking that the fallout from their friendship won’t be out of control, and willfully ignores the possibility for disaster with such a young and traumatized person. This film is compelling from start to finish.